Should we still bankroll Olympics?
FOR the first time since the 1970s, Australia’s Olympic ambitions stand on the edge of a precipice.
Only this time we have some say over whether we go over the brink, and how far we might fall.
It could all happen in slow motion, over time, unlike the last plunge over the cliff.
The debacle of the 1976 Montreal Olympics came as a complete surprise.
Some likened it to a drop from the gallows.
Australian athletes trotted off to Canada confidently expecting to come home with 20 or 30 medals, but returned instead with five, and not a single gold.
It was labelled an embarrassment and a national disgrace.
Fingers pointed in all directions as a nation reared on exemplary sporting achievement was forced to come to terms with a calamity.
Politicians drummed up money, and the Australian Institute of Sport was established.
It was the start of a long, steady ascent back to glory.
The giddiest heights came at the Sydney Olympics – 58 medals, 17 of them gold, and fourth place on the table at the ‘best ever’ Games.
God was in his heaven and all was right with the world.
Since then Australia’s Olympic crown has started to slip.
The 46 medals won in Beijing last year were good enough only for sixth place.
If an Olympics were held this year Australia would finish seventh, according to the Australian Olympic Committee’s latest annual benchmark survey, and the AOC is predicting eighth spot at the 2012 London Olympics.
The crown will continue to slip unless we invest ever more millions in the cause – that much is not in serious dispute.
But should we?
That is the burning question raised by this week’s long-awaited release of the Crawford report into sports funding.
Businessman David Crawford also helpfully provided an answer – ‘no’.
At least not if we want to more properly foster mass participation ‘lifetime’ sports that benefit the health of the whole community at grass roots level.
Sports like cricket, tennis, golf, the various football codes, netball and surfing, sports that are played by hundreds of thousands and have become part of the ‘national ethos’.
Crawford challenged the very basis of the AOC’s thinking – that a top five finish is virtually a national imperative.
He suggested it was no such thing.
In fact he said medals tables were a poor measure of sporting success.
He went a lot further.
He said that if the government did agree to pump an extra $100 million a year into sport, as the AOC has implored for the Olympics and Paralympics, then the money would be better spent elsewhere.
The Crawford report has sparked a flurry of debate in a sports-mad nation, as the government may well have wanted it to, ahead of its own response in the new year.
Much of it was predictable.
The normally measured and methodical AOC President John Coates bluntly described himself as ‘pissed off’.
He called the report ‘disrespectful’ of Australia’s Olympic achievements and ‘insulting’ to Olympic gold medallists in low-profile sports such as diver Matthew Mitcham, pole vaulter Steve Hooker and kayaker Ken Wallace.
Coates disputed the report’s findings of a funding bias in favour of Olympic sports.
He argued that unlike AFL, rugby league and cricket, Olympic sports did not enjoy the benefits of big broadcast deals and gate revenues at stadiums funded by the public purse.
Cricket and the various football codes, however, were glowing in their praise.
Some critics played the man, not the ball.
Coates remarked somewhat acidly that Crawford and his panel were well-meaning but ‘not qualified to make recommendations on elite sport at international level’.
Others pointed out that three of the five panel members, including Crawford, were corporate heavyweights all closely aligned to the AFL and a fourth was associated with rugby league.
Crawford’s report certainly came at a curious moment in Coates’ career as a sports administrator.
Never has the AOC boss held such power on the world scene, having just been elected to the IOC’s inner sanctum, the 15-member executive committee.
But never has he faced such a political abyss in his own country.
He is a realist who knows that in this day and age money equals medals.
Australia is spending around $588 million in the four-year lead-up to the London Olympics, half the amount being pumped in by each of its major European competitors – Britain, Germany and France – and $300 million less than Italy.
Coates is seeking an extra $1 billion over 10 years – $100 million a year – to keep pace with them.
But critics say it is pointless trying to keep up with the Joneses, trying to mix it with much bigger and wealthier countries in an Olympic spendathon.
They say the only people who get into such a lather about medals tables are Coates and his cronies.
Why shouldn’t Australia be happy, they ask, with a top 10 finish?
Why shouldn’t we be happy if our Olympians punch within their weight division for once, rather than so far above it?
Does it really matter if we snag a few extra medals occasionally in taekwondo, synchronised swimming, clay target shooting or Greco-Roman wrestling?
Isn’t it more important to have good netball courts everywhere, more sports equipment in schools and clubs, and more coaches and PE teachers?
The report asks three key questions:
How central is Olympic success really to our sense of national pride?
How much does it really help put us on the map globally, opening doors in business and politics?
And how much are we willing to pay for it?